21st Century Firefighting

If we took a snapshot of today's American fire service, what would we find compared to 10 or 20 or even 50 years ago? Sure, our vehicles have changed, as has our personal protective equipment (PPE), but have we changed how we do business, at least in terms of strategy and tactics?

Don't we rush to the scene, just as we did 50 years ago? Don't we deploy hoselines quickly once we get on location, just as we did a generation or two ago? Don't we still save lives and property, just as in years past? Or, do we?

Our proud and tradition-oriented profession has the dubious distinction of being one of the most dangerous, outside of warfare. We lose over 100 firefighters a year doing what we have been doing for centuries. Maybe that's the problem! As retired Phoenix, AZ, Fire Chief Alan Brunacini said, "For 200 years, we've been providing a service at the expense of those providing the service."

As a profession, we keep saying that we should be safer. We have convened think tanks, committees and blue-ribbon panels, but have we really affected our death and injury rates? It seems like we are merely lemmings marching to our deaths. In a way, our behavior is one of mass suicide because we keep doing the same things over and over, unquestioningly, with fatal consequences. Isn't this pure insanity?

The point here is simply the concept of recognition; that is, recognition of when situations cannot be effectively handled the way they used to be handled; recognition that data and current information must be thoroughly examined in order to employ a "best-practices" approach; and recognition that new paradigms must be developed and instituted to effectively satisfy situational goals and objectives and avoid the needless loss of lives, especially firefighter lives.

This article is part one of a three-part series that will analyze data on the present state of the fire service and why so many firefighters are killed each year in our country. Part two will look at the value of learning fire behavior intrinsically along with the dynamics of fire for interior firefighting. Part three will offer new and safer alternatives to fighting fire from a best-practices approach.

Lessons for the Fire Service

Over 100 years ago, the philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." His simple insight should be committed to memory. Everyone in the fire service should know our history, but many lessons of the past are forgotten. While many tragedies and disasters have occurred to firefighters and we honor the memory of those who lost their lives, do we apply the lessons to our present context? We should look for commonalities and respond accordingly.

Consider this: John Naisbitt's insightful book Megatrends analyzed business trends over time in order to predict the future. Many of his predictions came to be. Naisbitt's looking backwards provided a glimpse of what was to come, but the way in which the research was conducted was the key: Naisbitt and his staff looked at data from an outsider's standpoint. They distinctly avoided a "can't see the forest for the trees" philosophy.

The American fire service would do well to employ the same concepts in analyzing its own data and trends. At the 2007 Fire-Rescue International conference, a Swedish fire official, Dr. Stefan Svensson, offered his views of the American fire service and its safety record. While many in the audience were offended by his blunt approach, maybe we should not kill the messenger. If we as a profession are to improve, we must be open to constructive criticism. We also must stop discrediting "messengers" such as those from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) who investigate firefighter fatalities. While it is true that many NIOSH investigators do not have fire service experience, they indicate where the fire service can learn and apply concepts to maintain safety.

The New Battlefield

When all of these concepts above are taken in and internalized, there is a message for the fire service: wake up, adapt and overcome, or pay the price. True, we lose many firefighters to heart attacks and apparatus accidents, but also because of outdated fireground tactics. We continue to use tactics largely developed in the 1940s, that is, aggressive interior attacks despite many changes in fire behavior and building construction. Since then, standard furnishings for homes and basic building components have changed substantially as sources of fuel for fire. Today's fires have enormous heat output and also release exponentially more smoke than yesterday's fires.

At the 2005 Fire Department Instructors Conference, in a presentation titled "Testing Tactics Scientifically: PPV in Residential Structures," Chief Bob Nicks and Captain Chris Watson of the Austin, TX, Fire Department and Professor O.A. Ezekoye from the University of Texas made an eye-opening comparison that working inside a smoke-filled environment is similar to being inside a propane gas cloud. The reality that today's smoke is really unburned fuel is that this is one reason why firefighters are caught in flashovers more frequently than in the past. It would behoove the fire service to stress this point at training sessions, ad nauseam, so that every firefighter understands this hazard, not to mention the risk. Several national-level instructors have tirelessly spoken to these points; for example, don't miss Dave Dodson's presentations on "Reading Smoke."

Additionally, John Mittendorf, a retired chief from the City of Los Angeles Fire Department, has authored many articles concerning the changes in smoke content over the years. In a firenuggets.com article, Mittendorf wrote that pre-1970 buildings, being constructed and furnished with mainly conventional materials, emitted a gray-brown smoke when fire struck. He also added that the smoke from these fires commonly ignited, or flashed, in the range of 1,500 to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. Mittendorf goes on to state that the more volatile synthetics involved in today's fires burn two to three times faster and hotter than conventional materials. With these post-1970 building fires, his biggest tip is that the smoke can flash at temperatures in the range of 800° to 900°F, or about half the ignition temperature of a fire 30 to 40 years ago.

Buildings of yesterday were also built much more substantially with large-dimensional lumber and, consequently, they held up much longer during the transition from a contents fire to a structural fire. Because of this observation, it was commonly accepted that firefighters had up to 20 minutes to extinguish, or kill, the fire and get out before compromising their safety. Over the years, transitions have included more use of lightweight structural components, such as wood trusses for both roof and floor components, more use of oriented strand board (OSB), and more use of other glue and pressure-assembled components. This all adds up to less resistance to flame impingement and excess heat situations.

Simply stated, the structures of today are more prone to early collapse than the more substantial structures of 30 or 40 years ago under fire-impingement situations. Consequently, the standard axiom for lightweight construction now has become a five-minute rule for evacuation. Witness the numerous recent and well-documented residential fires from across the country where structures collapsed like a house of cards. The problem for the fire service is that there now exist over 100 million homes in the United States that are built with lightweight construction. (See "Entering Through the Door, Falling Through the Floor" by Azarang "Ozzie" Mirkhah and Sean DeCrane, www.firehouse.com, posted Nov. 19, 2008; and Safety and Survival, page 26 of this issue.)

The Value of Fire Statistics

Rapid fire spread is another concern that has appeared over the years due to how structures are built today. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) reports that the average house size in 1973 was 1,660 square feet. By 2003, houses increased in size by 44.6% to 2,400 square feet. In fact, many neighborhood associations in the U.S. have mandated minimum new houses be at least 2,500 to 3,000 square feet. Furthermore, the number of houses that have nine-foot ceilings is 38% today versus just 15% in the late 1980s.

Over the past 30 years, the increase in house sizes that occurred spawned a trend in houses called "McMansions." These structures are 3,000 to 5,000 square feet with expansive rooms and large formal entrances. They were given the name after the "super-sizing" trend that McDonald's provided with its food choices, but also because of the speed of construction. Indeed, if a structure can be built extremely fast, it will be made of lightweight components that will be consumed by fire quickly.

Combined with more homes having completed lower levels, these facts mean that fire spread will be much more rapid in the homes of today because they are more expansive. Additionally, homes today are built tighter in response to energy concerns and many have double- and triple-pane windows that can lead to more future ventilation-controlled fires. Along with the above, it is readily apparent, with the advent of lightweight building construction techniques, bigger structures, and the increased volatility of our furnishings, the battlefield has changed! We must recognize this and adjust our tactics accordingly. (See "A Historical Lesson from the Gettysburg Battlefield" on page 114.)

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has reported that while the number of structure fires decreased dramatically from 1977 to 2000, the number of firefighter deaths at structure fires has also decreased. Yet, the death rate of firefighters has remained steady at approximately 5.2 per 100,000 structure fires. To put this statistic another way, some fire service notables have stated that firefighters are twice as likely to die at a structure fire compared to a generation ago. In contrast, over the same period, the rate of heart attack deaths at structure fires has been dropping to a present level of approximately 1.8 deaths per 100,000 structure fires. (See "Trends in Firefighter Fatalities Due to Structural Collapse, 1979-2002" by Lori D. Brassell and David D. Evans, a National Institute of Standards and Technology study conducted through Federal Emergency Management Agency/U.S. Fire Administration funding, 2003.)

Also, the rate of firefighter deaths inside structures, other than heart attacks, indicates a clear upward trend. Causes of these non-heart attack deaths include smoke inhalation, burns and crushing injuries, and they accounted for 135 firefighter deaths from 1990 to 2000. Of these deaths, 75 of them, (approximately 56%), can be attributed to both fire progress (37 due to flashovers and backdrafts) and structural collapse (38). In light of this final statistic that indicates an upward trend, the NFPA states, "it is essential that we find out why."

Still another study, this one by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), found that between 1979 and 2002, 180 firefighter line-of-duty deaths due to structural collapse had occurred. Of the collapse fatalities, over 65% happened during fire attack. This study also found the rate for fatalities at residential property fires over the same time span had more than tripled. (See Positive Pressure Attack for Ventilation and Firefighting by Kriss Garcia, Reinhold Kauffmann and Ray Schelble, copyright 2007 by Pennwell Books). Also, recent statistics support a sharp upward trend since 2000 with structural collapse fatalities.

When these noteworthy statistics are also coupled with changes in construction, the Btu increases in consumables and the decreasing flashover times, it cannot be more obvious that this is the answer to the "why" of the question that the NFPA poses and the reason why the overall rate of firefighter deaths remains steady.

Firefighting Technology

Adding to the above, the fire service has not, by and large, kept up with technological advances. Aside from improvements in protective equipment such as self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), personal alert safety system (PASS) devices, protective ensembles such as bunker coats and pants, hoods, gloves, and helmets, the fire service has not universally embraced technological concepts such as:

  • Thermal imaging — While many fire departments have purchased these devices in the past decade, and they are now looked upon more as necessities than luxuries, thermal imaging cameras are not used to their full capacity. That is, they should be used at structure fires when the 360-degree walk-around is conducted to look for hot spots and vulnerable building construction failure points. This important outside "reading" of the building may even preclude firefighter entry.
  • Class A foam water additives — Just a small amount of this slippery additive makes water more effective, yet few fire departments are aware of this benefit. In a recent www.firehouse.com poll, only 50% of the respondents use Class A foam, at least periodically. This is despite a recent study on its effectiveness conducted by the Chicago Fire Department in conjunction with Underwriters Laboratory (UL). Additionally, other fire departments, such as Nashville, TN, and Phoenix, AZ, have enjoyed years of effective use of Class A foam.
  • Positive-pressure ventilation (PPV) for fire attack — Garcia, Kauffmann and Schelble estimated that a mere 10% of career fire departments in the country employ PPV during fire attack. That number increases to only about 30% for volunteer/paid-on-call departments in the United States. This is despite numerous studies by several organizations, including NIST, on its safety and effectiveness. (Also on the topic of PPV, the NFPA Journal published an article in its September/October 2008 edition titled "NIST Goes Back to School" by Steven Kerber, a NIST fire protection engineer. The article chronicles PPV effectiveness as a result of extensive fire testing at an old, 300,000-square-foot high school. The conclusion was "the experiments established that the use of PPV can limit the spread of hot gases and decrease the temperature in the structure, allowing for increased survivability for potential victims and enhancing firefighter safety." Kerber continues by writing, "With appropriate knowledge and training, PPV is another tool firefighters can use to make their jobs safer and more efficient.")
  • Pre-emergency planning for fire attack — As an industry, the fire service has also not employed the electronic pre-emergency plan concept adequately when it comes to formulating pre-attack strategies and tactics at the fire scene. While some fire departments have installed mobile data computers (MDCs) in their response vehicles, few have made available to firefighters the pre-emergency plan for a structure while enroute to include such crucial information as hydrant location and flow capability, the floor plan, estimated fire flow for extinguishment and associated building hazards. Two effective and easy to use electronic pre-emergency plan systems, one called "COBRA" (critical observations from building risk analysis; http://www.azstarnet.com/sn/related/85471), and another called "OSX" (On-scene Xplorer; http://www.onscenexplorer.com) have proven to be very effective on fire incidents across the country. Additionally, concerning new construction, especially lightweight construction, electronic updates can be supplied from a city's engineering department.
  • Emerging technology and practices — In addition to the above, new technology also includes advances in firefighter location devices, fire interruption technology (FIT-5), along with "pyrolance" and "strong-arm" technology. Emerging practices include the concept of the "rule of air management" (ROAM), recognition of enclosed building hazards, and even more application of fire prevention strategies such as smoke and heat detector use along with aggressive battery replacement, fire-rated containment of lightweight construction members, and even residential sprinkler systems for single- and double-family occupancies. Given time and honest assessments, these items may have substantial impacts on modern firefighting strategy and tactics along with firefighter safety.

Time for Action

In essence, the rules of engagement have changed, and it is time to make the changes needed to end the carnage. We, as knowledgeable and competent professionals, must make a strong commitment to end this march of the lemmings. Collectively, we must recognize the mistakes of the past and take action to prevent needless firefighter deaths in the future.

What can be done, then, to counter the present day situation or at least tip the odds in favor of firefighters? Here are several points to consider:

  1. Train in the basics of building construction, fire behavior and risk assessment, and then be able to rapidly recognize situations in order to safeguard their health and safety.
  2. Formally study case studies of structure fires from sources such as the NFPA, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), NIOSH's Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation Program, NIST and the Near Miss Reporting System.
  3. Conduct pre-emergency planning by getting out into the community and observing new buildings as they are constructed. Document and share the information with everyone in the department. Finally, access the plans before crews are committed to structure fires at the facility.
  4. Consider employing the concepts of crew resource management (CRM) — effective communications, situational awareness, decision making, teamwork and task allocation.
  5. Train and develop personnel to understand the safety concepts of proper and effective supervision techniques, effective training geared toward safety, purchasing, maintaining and using equipment as it was designed, and the importance of developing effective and comprehensive policy and procedures.
  6. Strictly follow and enforce policy and procedures that direct personnel to respond in a safe and effective manner. Personnel should thoroughly understand how to respond in a step-by-step method that uses sound firefighting principles along with available technological advances.

DAVID F. PETERSON is a lieutenant in the Madison, WI, Fire Department, where he is the lead fire and hazmat training officer. He is in his 30th year as an emergency responder. Peterson is enrolled in the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer program and is a master instructor for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). He is the managing member of the Wisconsin FLAME Group LLC, a leadership and management company, and operates www.hazmatpetie.com, a hazardous materials response training website. Please send your comments and questions to him at www.hazmatpetie.com or dcnkm@charter.net.